Monetary and social rewards represent a natural expression of our appreciation for someone who goes above and beyond in his job. However, they also strongly reward the thrill of the crisis itself, which can lead to destructive behavior, like what I encountered in a multinational company.

The IT department was in a state of constant panic, with one disaster after another looming on the horizon. As the CIO and I talked, it became clear that things started to fall apart eight months prior. Before that, his team kept meticulous records about events, followed procedures, and had a far higher rate of success. After a meltdown in the server room, everything fell apart.

The CIO wanted to try a new operations process. I wasn’t so sure. Something seemed off. Instead, I suggested that I could spend some time on the floor as an engineer; since he needed some network reconfiguration work done anyway. It would give me a good chance to look around.

After spending a week on the floor I found out what was going on. The new server architect was deliberately holding work that needed to be done until the last possible minute. He would also “shuffle” data around to make things worse than they really were. In every case he would work hard to resolve whatever issues occurred because of his own inattention. In return for his hard work rewards and social accolades were rained upon him. The rest of the team saw this behavior and the rewards associated with it and they began to adopt it as an acceptable way of handling work.

Distinguishing between manufactured and natural problems
This particular organization fell far on one side of the dysfunctional crisis spectrum. They went from being a well-ordered company to a crisis-driven one because one key decision maker became addicted to the rewards given to those who solve problems. His behavior spread until the organization finally fell to its knees.

However, removing the benefits for those who successfully solve problems would just have compounded the problem. And releasing the architect without an explanation wouldn’t have reconditioned the rest of the staff. What we needed to do was identify a way to distinguish between those crises that occurred as part of the normal operation of the system and those manufactured by the parties involved.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Without getting into the daily details of our employees’ work hours, it can be difficult to identify manufactured vs. natural problems. An employee looking to score his next big challenge can easily fool traditional tools like change management, time boxing, and time management. Independent risk assessments can help a bit, but failure to mitigate dangerous risks cannot really be taken as a sign of crisis-inducing behavior.

Instead, the CIO and I decided to focus in on behaviors that we believed indicated that the employee wanted to avoid crises. This list included:

  • Constant, identified effort to achieve milestones before their due date
  • Identification and resolution of unexpected issues before they became crises
  • Understanding and application of basic time estimation without being queried
  • Willingness to follow procedure and willingness to suggest improvements to those procedures

These four measurements became the framework around which we built the new rewards system.

Rewarding calm
Our goal was to reward those employees who consistently suppressed crises through controlled and intelligent work. We hoped that by providing constant, low-level reinforcement we could encourage people to turn away from creating disasters.

Over time the steady positive reinforcement and occasional restaurant gift certificates (coupled with a slightly shorter work day) for particularly brilliant work efforts started to pay off. People went back to the previous system. The new architect rapidly became dissatisfied with his position, since praise was being awarded to those who avoided what he felt he could do. Although we tried to mentor him to the new system, he eventually left for another organization.

There’s nothing wrong with rewarding those who step up during a crisis. However, if you fail to similarly reward and support those who work hard to avoid problems and crises, you can create a situation where employees will naturally gravitate towards becoming crisis oriented. Even with good processes and reasonably talented leadership in place, this can cause a steady degeneration in productivity and morale.